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TOUCHING THE UNTOUCHABLES' / A Bay Area group's work in a Romainian hospital


August 4, 1991 
Edition: SUNDAY
Page: 7/Z1

Index Terms:
Touch Romania
Mary Rose Christy
Riu Vadului
Terre des Hommes
Angela Mason
"TOUCHING THE UNTOUCHABLES' / A Bay Area group's work in a Romainian hospital
Dateline: Riu Vadului, Romania
Article Text:
At a hospital for the forgotten in Romania, grave digging was a coveted job.
As the boy who calls himself Francisco explained, he never minded digging holes for the bodies of the children and adults who did not survive the harsh Romanian winters. It was the only time he was allowed beyond the locked gates of the asylum called Riu Vadului, outside the city of Sibiu in the Transylvania region, where he has spent most of his life.
``If you are here, you have to stay until you die,'' said Francisco, 19, who renamed himself after the city by the bay after he heard of San Francisco on a television show. ``When I dug the graves, I had a chance to look at the other people, the ones who don't have to live here.''
The casualties of Riu Vadului were buried by Francisco and others on a hillside across the road and past the stone wall that separates the hospital from the outside world. In the winter, when green grass and thick vegetation do not cover the makeshift graveyard, ribs and femurs stick up from the exposed ground.
Now, the story of the young grave digger who named himself after San Francisco is known to Northern California through the efforts of Angela Mason, a working wife and mother from Albany and the founder of Touch Romania of San Francisco.
Mason and others are working to put the Riu Vadului cemetery out of business.
``I was raped when I was 20,'' said Mason, 37, recalling an incident that occurred when she was a drama student in her native England. She was attacked about 11 p.m. in a schoolyard by two men as she walked home from the Kent train station. As one of them strangled her and she was about to lose consciousness, the other attacker pulled his partner's hands off her neck.
``I think a part of me always felt my life was spared for some reason,'' said Mason -- ``a feeling I was supposed to do something.''
What Mason is doing is focusing worldwide attention on the fate of the Romanians sentenced to life in Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's system of hospitals for what he called ``irrecoverables.'' They are better described as dumping grounds for Romanians who did not fit into the dictator's draconian vision for the country -- from abandoned children to the physically and mentally handicapped youngsters and adults.
There is Lucia, the deaf woman who mothers one of her fellow patients, a tiny child, as if she were a doll.
There are 8-year-old children in cribs who look 2 years old because they have spent their lives undernourished and untouched.
And there is Francisco, who came to Riu Vadului at age 3 and is said to have started several small fires around the asylum. He cannot count to five, but he has a mechanic's knowledge of the workings of a car.
``Once I made it so the director's car did not run. One of the workers here told me to do it,'' Francisco said. He was punished with drug injections that made him sleep.
A little more than a third of Riu Vadului's 256 residents are children. Many of them were abandoned by their parents after Ceausescu banned abortion and contraception, as a way to expand the workforce.
At age 3, the abandoned youngsters were sorted out in scenes reminiscent of ``Sophie's Choice.'' Those 3-year-olds who appeared as if they would be able to work someday remained in the orphanage system. Those who weren't physically perfect or who had handicaps were sentenced to hell in hospitals like Riu Vadului, where they received little or no medical care and no education. For years, the Romanian government accepted an annual death rate at Riu Vadului of almost 50 percent. Only since Ceausescu was executed at the end of 1989 and worldwide attention focused on these hospitals have conditions begun to improve.
The Romanians say they did not know such hospitals existed.
``It does make you remember (that phrase) `I have no knowledge,' '' said Willem DeVries, referring to what the Germans said about the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. De Vries is director of the Romanian relief effort by the Netherlands arm of Terre des Hommes, or Earth for Mankind. Terre des Hommes is an international relief organization for children that is working at hospitals across Romania, including Riu Vadului, where the Bay Area's group is joining in the work pioneered by the Dutch.
The Romanian institutions often were hidden in idyllic country settings. Riu Vadului, with a name reminiscent of Romania's Latin roots, nestles next to a picturesque river of the same name and the Fagaras Mountains, part of the Carpathian range and the most popular hiking area in the country.
But the spot's incredible beauty, complete with the sound of wind rushing through the trees, is deceiving. The river is polluted by the hospital's own plumbing system, which spews raw waste into the water. And in winter, when the wells freeze, the patients walk barefoot in the snow to cut a hole in the river's ice and fill their buckets with the contaminated water. Those lucky enough to have socks must choose between wearing them on their feet or on their hands as gloves.
To this remote Romanian village, Mason and Sister Mary Rose Christy, 68, of Burlingame have come to establish a Bay Area outpost. Christy will stay for a year to establish a medical clinic and work with the residents, while Mason continues her fund raising in the United States.
Mason, who is married to a theater professor at California State University at Hayward and is the mother of Elizabeth, 2 1/2, had been an actress in Britain and a personnel consultant in San Francisco. When she saw a television show about Romanian orphans in the spring of 1990, she became outraged. The difference between her and most armchair zealots is that she did something about it.
``When the San Francisco earthquake came, all the plaques I'd earned over the years came tumbling down on my head,'' said Mason. ``And I thought, `That serves you right, you smug thing.' It made me wonder what my life really was about in a spiritual sense. I had a wonderful child, a great husband and a good job, but still it felt like there was something more I should be doing with my life.''
Last spring, Mason quit an $80,000-a-year job as a headhunter to work full-time on the Romanian relief effort, but she's not looking back.
With the sponsorship of the San Francisco Rotary Club, Mason wielded her charming British accent and businesswoman's acumen to raise $60,000 and 26,000 pounds of clothes and other donations in five months, and Touch Romania of San Francisco was born. Today, a network of California volunteers raises money and focuses attention on Romania, performing a variety of chores from answering phones to driving trucks.
In November, Mason and a small group of volunteers from the Bay Area traveled to Romania in search of an institution to ``adopt.'' They stumbled upon Riu Vadului on the advice of a waiter in a Romanian hotel.
The Dutch volunteers from Terre des Hommes had just arrived when Mason first saw Riu Vadului. The Dutch started diapering children who had been left sitting on a board in their own waste. They began cuddling and playing with youngsters who had never been touched. They stopped the staff from beating the children and adults, who had accepted such punishment as a way of life. Most important, the volunteers began to teach the Romanian staff how to care for the youngsters themselves.
Over the past seven months Terre des Hommes has helped make many improvements, including building a new cabana to house children and renovating the women's ward.
``It's night and day, the progress,'' Mason said. ``The smell is gone. Just to see what can be done in seven months, it makes me very hopeful.''
To understand Mason's life philosophy, it's helpful to know her favorite movie is ``It's a Wonderful Life'' with Jimmy Stewart, the tale of how a single life can make a difference.
`Iwas never very good in school,'' said Sister Mary Rose Christy. ``I flunked Latin. I can't spell. In church, they used to tell me to be quiet because I couldn't sing very well. I think failures like that make you more understanding and, most of all, more determined.
``And Angela Mason is one of the few people I've met who is as determined as I am.''
After working as a nurse, a legislative aide in Arizona and as an advocate for Native Americans, Christy is at the age when nuns are supposed to go to the retirement home and spend their days visiting the sick.
``But I don't want a pretend job,'' she said. ``You know, the kind where you don't show up for a week and no one notices. That's not me.
``Besides, who wants to live in a nice house when three-quarters of the world lives in poverty?'' asked Christy, who sleeps on the floor of a house on an unpaved road in the Romanian village of Talmaciu. Christy's housemates are three cows, four pigs, 20 chickens and a 32-year-old Dutch man, Hans Hunink.
``I've lived with a lot of people, but I've never lived with a nun,'' joked Hunink, who has been working at Riu Vadului for the past seven months as a volunteer with Terre des Hommes. Hunink, whose background is in psychology, has worked for 10 years with the handicapped in the Netherlands.
Riu Vadului is not the only Romanian success for Terre des Hommes. The Dutch group also recently took the children from an asylum outside Bucharest called Plateresti and relocated them in a renovated hospital in the city. Plateresti looked like a prison; cartoon characters adorn the walls of the new hospital.
Last September, the children of Plateresti made no sounds and lived on only three bottles of milk a day. Today they are hugged regularly and are saying their first words in their new home.
At Riu Vadului, Bay Area contributors have already paid $40,000 to fix the asylum's ailing water system, but Touch Romania and Terre des Hommes also plan a major plumbing overhaul, a vegetable garden, a children's playground, a central heating system and other projects.
``People keep sending these things,'' Hunink said. ``But things aren't what we need.''
For example, the residents of Riu Vadului, who practically freeze in the winter if there is a shortage of quality firewood for their stoves, have been watching ``Dallas'' reruns on a donated television set. Francisco revealed what he has learned from the show: ``In Dallas, everybody will kill everybody.''
``We want to put our resources into projects that will have lasting impact,'' Mason said. ``That is why we are talking about gardens instead of stuff.''
Hunink said, ``Our only real success will come when the Romanians help themselves. The staff was brainwashed into not seeing these children as people. They, the Romanians, are the biggest challenge.''
Before, the Dutch volunteers used to find long sticks in the morning, leftovers from nighttime beatings inflicted on the residents by Romanian workers. The residents have not forgotten what they learned from the staff, and they continue to hit one another.
Despite a battle waged by the volunteers to stop the staff from drinking on the job, empty vodka and wine bottles still pop up. And often it seems as if all of Riu Vadului -- staff, volunteers, even many of the children -- are smoking cigarets.
Some of the workers, who can't feed their own children in a country where food shortages are a way of life, resent the attention being lavished on the little ones of Riu Vadului.
Many of the staff sit with blank stares, not talking to each other or their charges. Years of mistrust -- of their neighbors, of their government, of themselves -- has taught them not to feel, not to think.
``I love Romania and I hate Romania,'' Hunink said. ``And I think the Romanians love me and hate me.''
From the children and other residents of Riu Vadului, there is only love. They rush up to Hunink, telling him their dreams from the night before, tattling on the children who will not get out of bed that morning. They encircle him as he walks.
``I feel very special for them because they survived unspeakable conditions,'' Hunink said. ``Those who lived had to have spirit, fight, to make it. They had to be independent or they'd be dead.''
Such a fighting soul is Pavel. Hunink found Pavel -- who is about 25, records are unclear -- lying on a blanket in a corner of one of the older buildings last winter. His pretzel-like legs were blue from the cold. He refuses to be fed, preferring to stick his face into the bowl placed next to him on his bed.
Pavel's eyes are full of fire, and he laughs when Hunink tells a visitor that the woman in the bed next to Pavel is his girlfriend.
In the absence of anything else, the residents of Riu Vadului created their own civilization and their own families. They hug. They dance and laugh. Those who know how to read have taught some of the others to write their names.
Ion Marin, 52, was sent here as an ``irrecoverable,'' but he learned to maintain the hospital's plumbing system. His one-room shack along the river that borders the hospital is decorated with the toys he rescues from the clogged pipes, playthings the children of Riu Vadului throw down the primitive toilets. He proudly displays the miniature family from a toy tugboat next to a photograph of a young Katharine Ross, circa ``The Graduate.'' In Romania, people decorate with whatever they have.
``From before, I only remember that my parents had ground and they took the ground away,'' said Marin, referring to the days after World War II when the Communists seized power and property, turning the peasant farms into collectives.
In a classroom in the first school Riu Vadului has ever had, established by Terre des Hommes, more ``irrecoverables'' carefully print page after page of neat numbers.
The children who had been written off as hopeless sing, ``We are Romanians and we are not afraid to live here.''
The visitors look away. They do not want the children to see their tears.
For more information on Touch Romania, call (415) 989-7055 or write P.O. Box 190307, San Francisco, CA 94119-0307.
(1-2) Left: a nurse helps a child walk; below: children's faces reflect happy change from the horrors of past years, (3) Hospital workers from Plateresti asylum share an emotional good-by with children moving to a renovated hospital , (4-5) Left: A patient stands in front of a broken television, holding a record player donated to the hospital; below: a Romanian worker learns to care for the handicapped children, (6) The residents of Riu Vadului form their own families. Here, two women comfort each other, (7-8) Above: children of Riu Vadului play outside; right: a handicapped child struggles to communicate, (9) Many in Riu Vadului do not remember living anyplace else, (10) Sister Mary Rose Christy embraces patients upon her arrival at Riu Vadului / PHOTOS BY FREDERIC LARSEN/THE CHRONICLE
Lori Olszewski and Frederic Larson are on the staff of The Chronicle.
Copyright 1991 San Francisco Chronicle
Record Number: 18712

1991 Aug 4